27 July 2007

Jews and Superheroes


Superman, Batman, Captain American and a slew of other superheroes have something in common besides funny-looking tights. They were all created by Jews, many from Eastern European backgrounds.

Jewish comics creators and co-creators include Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (Superman); Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman); Will Eisner (The Spirit); Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, the X-Men); Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (Captain America); and of course Stan Lee (who helped create Spider-Man and a whole bunch of others).

This is more than a coincidence, argues Danny Fingeroth, former editorial director of the Spider-Man comic books, in his upcoming book Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero. While he may not go as far as some authors who claim Superman is an incarnation of Moses, he does believe the Jewish heritage of their creators influenced the first generation of superheroes and the worlds in which they lived.

In an interview, Fingeroth -- author of 2004's well-received Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society -- talked about Jews and superheroes prior to this weekend's Comic-Con, the world's largest comics convention.

Question:: How do you think the lives of Jewish comics creators influenced the fictional worlds they created?

Danny Fingeroth: You had a bunch of young men whose parents were immigrants, writing stories about a very idealized world, where force is wielded wisely and people are judged by their individual character, not by who they are or who their parents were. For the guys who made the comics, it was a way to transcend who you were and become locked into and involved with the American mainstream, to blend in.

QUESTION: Do you think Jews worked in comics because they couldn't get jobs elsewhere?

Fingeroth: That was a big part of it. Because of various types of prejudice, things were closed off to Jews in the first half of the 20th century. Maybe it's hard to believe now, but Jews were not accepted in a lot of the publishing or advertising industries. There was a great deal of discrimination. There were no official policies like “No Jews allowed,” but you could interview all you want and still not get work you might have been highly qualified for.

QUESTION: Many superheroes, if not all of them, are outsiders in some way in their civilian incarnations. They're orphans, weaklings, ordinary men. Is there a connection here to their creators being Jewish?

Fingeroth: Historically, the racist caricature of the Jew is of someone who somehow is simultaneously weak and yet controls the world, or significant aspects of it. So one could say that the wimpy secret identity was the Jewish creators' ways of saying that we're powerful, in an individual sense, not wimps, and guided, individually and as a group, by the selfless desire to do good. Of course, this is all reading things into the work way after the fact. None of the creators consciously thought about this stuff when they were writing and drawing the stories.

It's also a comment on the immigrant desire, Jewish and otherwise, to both be part of the society -- be Clark Kent -- and also be separate from it as a being of superhuman power.

On a larger metaphorical level, it's about the need we all have to feel that we are more than the world thinks we are. "If only they knew my secret, they'd be sorry for the way they treated me!"

QUESTION: Do you think the heritage of the creators made them especially interested in secret identities?

Fingeroth: I think they were interested in the part of the psyche that compels us to operate on multiple levels, playing different roles depending on the circumstances.

I don't know if there's anything exclusively Jewish about that, although as a group with a history of being persecuted, doing what you can to achieve harmony with the dominant society could make someone preoccupied with what role they're playing when.

QUESTION: Do you think the creators consciously thought of the Jewish influences on their work?

Fingeroth: They were sitting around thinking, “How can I make a living and move out of my parents’ house or help my parents out? How can I survive the Depression as a creative person, when there aren't many options?” They were 18, 19, 20 years old.

Some of them were from really poor families and couldn’t afford to go to college. What were they going to do?

What I also found was that a lot of early comics creators were from families that, when they were kids, had been relatively prosperous and then lost everything in the (stock market) crash of 1929 that heralded the beginning of the Great Depression. They had this weird background of having been fairly secure as kids, and suddenly having nothing at all. It's like Superman having his whole planet blown up, or Bruce Wayne (Batman) having his parents murdered, or Peter Parker (Spider-Man), already an orphan as a baby, having his adoptive father -- Uncle Ben -- murdered.

QUESTION: How did these men look at being Jewish? Did they tend to be very observant?

Fingeroth: No. I think back in the '30s and '40s, if you were Orthodox, you wouldn’t do something like comics. I think it was considered something not serious. (Today), you can see 125,000 people migrate to San Diego to the Comic-Con to pray in the Church of Popular Culture. There's something about being able to take a lot of what would ordinarily be religious impulses (and direct them) into creating fiction. It's like a religious substitute, where nobody ever -- well, hardly ever -- gets into violent confrontations about if their favorite superhero is somehow better than someone else’s.

QUESTION: Did critics ever pick up on the fact that many comics creators were Jewish?

Fingeroth: Some were from a more-well-to do German/Austrian Jewish background, as opposed to the mostly Russian- and Polish-descended Jewish men and women who worked in comics (along with Italian-Americans and people of all sorts of backgrounds). In hindsight, you could see his hostility to comics as his seeing the comics publishers and creators as being the cultural equivalent of junk dealers, an embarrassment to Jewish people.

QUESTION: You're Jewish yourself. Are you worried that your book might give ammunition to anti-Semites who like to make claims about Jewish domination?

Fingeroth: My joke is that it's of most interest to Jews and anti-Semites. Most other people don’t give a shit. I think it's one of the best things I've written, but it was one of the hardest to write, too, because of how careful I wanted to be about how I framed things so as not to give ammunition to bigots who might want to twist what I was saying. I ultimately decided that if I was going to write this book, and I did and do think it was important to write, I had to put that fear out of my mind and figure that if someone has a reason to hate Jews, they don’t need to me as an excuse to do it.

QUESTION: What is the legacy of the superheroes these men created?

Fingeroth: Seventy years later, these characters, such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man (who was created in the 1960s) are still such powerful archetypes that nothing has come along to replace them. The creations of these mostly Jewish guys now being interpreted by people from all backgrounds because their appeal is universal. The characters and what they symbolize mean a lot to people -- although what they symbolize is different for each reader or moviegoer. People find the most lasting superheroes entertaining, of course, but also inspiring.

1 comment:

Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this interview with former Spider-Man comics group editor Danny Fingeroth. Fingeroth is also the editor of "Disguised as Clark Kent" and "Superman on the Couch," and is editor of "Write Now! magazine.